This is real news that should send shivers down the backs of anyone concerned about their reputation – false news moves through Twitter “farther, faster, deeper and more broadly” than the truth.
The disquieting finding by a team of researchers at MIT and published in Science is based on tracking the online life of “news” trafficked on Twitter. Real news and false news were judged by a collection of online fact-checkers that included Snopes.com and Politifact.com. The study authors found a false rumor is retweeted and spreads 70 percent more than a true story.
To put that into context, a true story may reach 1,000 people while a false rumor could gain an audience of up to 100,000 Twitter users.
While experts speculate on what propels falsehoods to travel faster online than the truth, reputation managers should worry about how to counter a campaign based on fast-moving, unverified fake news. Especially as technology “improves” to automate mass dissemination of fake news, turning a cascade from a single tweet into a volcanic eruption.
The Washington Post story on the MIT findings recalled a 2013 incident when someone hacked into the Associated Press Twitter account and “reported” explosions in the White House injuring President Obama. The report was untrue, but before anyone knew the truth, the Dow Jones index dropped 100 points – in just two minutes.
MIT researchers discovered that false news isn’t just spread by usual suspect bots. Some of the most viral contagions of fake news start as retweets from random individuals, which means the job of “monitoring the web” is pretty close to impossible.
Twitter collaborated with the researchers, which is itself a rarity, allowing them to trace the online lineage of 126,000 tweet cascades, spread by 3 million Twitter users.
Skeptics can question the sample and the differentiation between true and false stories. But the underlying fact remains that clicky false stories seem to have more online appeal and, therefore, represent a reputation-busting tool in the hands of unscrupulous or alienated people. It is a reputation manager’s worst nightmare. Someone tells a falsehood about you or your organization, you respond with verifiable facts, but the false narrative still dominates.
As noted in a previous Managing Issues blog, falsehoods that rise to the level of defamation can be dealt with by demanding that a social media platform removes the offending tweet. Many damaging falsehoods aren’t necessarily defamatory. They misstate facts or tell only part of the story. Debates over environmental issues and climate change are a great example of false or misleading narratives that come from either side of the debate.
Big lies by big actors usually get fact-checked. Big lies by lower profile actors seldom get fact-checked, which means the maligned party has the burden of trying to clean up the mess. Even lies exposed by credible fact-checkers can get shifted to their respective political lane of media outlets and never be seen by the other side of a polarized citizenry.
As social media moguls explore how to limit fake news, one tool reputation managers should consider when faced with a cascade of false news is to fight back on Twitter using promoted tweets. You would be, in effect, marketing your truth.
Use tools like video that attract the most attention on social media, including Twitter. Don’t whine. Find credible third parties who can verify your facts and attest to your veracity. Punch back hard, but fairly. Tell viewers the stakes. When appropriate, include a call to action such as shaming the person or organization responsible for the fake news – and those who help promote it, either unintentionally or on purpose.
Don’t be afraid to cross news channels to tell your story. Seek earned media coverage from print and TV outlets by stressing you are doing the only thing possible to combat the spread of false stories.
The worst thing to do is nothing. If you don’t defend your reputation, don’t expect anyone else to defend it. Purveyors of falsehoods may seem to have the upper hand in an online gunfight, but if you wage an honorable defense, you might receive more help than you expected.
Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.